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When small farmers consider adding poultry to their operation, the traditional focus is on how the birds will be raised. That’s the fun part—you get to comb through the breed catalog, select housing facilities and consider how the birds will integrate with the farm. Being realistic about poultry as a business or sustainable hobby, however, requires a lifecycle program. Otherwise, you’ll soon find yourself with three-year-old spent layers or a Tom turkey larger than the barnyard dog!

Humane Kills
On the frontier, grandma and grandpa got the job done by any means at their disposal. They usually chopped the bird’s head off or wrung its neck. I recommend neither of these methods to the modern farmer for humane reasons. When using the first, I believe the bird is alive for at least a few seconds after the hatchet strikes. With the second, the technique is hard to master, and you’ll probably end up torturing the first few birds. And paralysis induced through the broken neck does not necessarily knock the bird unconscious. We begin by placing the birds upside down in a funnel (also known as a “cone”). This can be made of anything from cardboard to stainless steel. It’s important that the funnel be sized to the bird. Too small and you’ll have a hard time accessing the head. Too large and the bird will often break its wings in the spasm following cardiac arrest. Expect that the cones will be occupied for about five minutes per bird, so select the number of cones in your operation accordingly.

We then take a very sharp knife and slice just below the lower jaw (“below” meaning towards the main body) on the outside of the neck. The slice should barely penetrate the skin. You’ll get a pronounced squirt of blood when you reach the carotid artery. If you’ve reached any tubes or bones, you’ve gone too far and are causing the bird undo stress. Quickly perform the same operation on the other side. With practice, this technique results in relatively painless unconsciousness within about 10 seconds. It further has the advantage that the bird’s heart and lungs continue to function until cardiac arrest sets in about a minute later, which contributes to a complete loss of blood. (Removal of the blood is critical to avoid those purple bruise marks often seen under the breast and through the wings of supermarket birds.) Some also claim that the lack of trauma eliminates hormones from the meat and makes the process of removing feathers easier.

Feather Removal
If you only have a few birds to process, you can remove the feathers by simply removing the skin. Start by hand-pulling a small patch of feathers between the vent and the breastbone, then make a small slice in the skin to gain a purchase with your fingers and start ripping. While this approach circumvents much of the time and expense associated with traditional plucking, it carries the significant downside that you lose the skin. For commercial producers, this means a smaller customer base (i.e., many buyers prefer roasters/broilers) and about 1/2 pound of lost carcass. Another downside is that it’s harder to maintain proper sanitation since feathers and dirt inevitably come in direct contact with the meat.

Volume producers select the traditional combination of a warmwater dunk to loosen the feathers first and then pull them out by the “root.” The critical aspect of this phase is to heat the skin gently without scalding it. Not applying sufficient heat will make it both more difficult to pull out the feathers and nearly impossible to remove all the little “hairs” that cover the skin just underneath the feathers. Too much heat and the skin will tear, making for both a poor presentation and possible carcass contamination. We’ve found that most chickens are effectively processed in the 140- to 145-degree Fahrenheit range, while turkeys benefit from another five degrees of heat.

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Pre-Slice Stunning
We use an electrical pulse to render the bird unconscious before slicing the arteries. This “stunning” is particularly advantageous to turkeys and exotic- breed chickens, which do not lose blood as quickly as modern chicken breeds and thus tend to hang in the semi-conscious state for longer than usual. The pulse also gives amateurs the ability to practice their slicing technique without causing the birds undo suffering. It’s harder to find those arteries than one might expect.

Commercial processors in both Eu- rope and the United States most often employ a pulse that runs from head to foot. While this method lends itself well to mechanization, it stops the heart and lungs dead in their tracks, inhibiting a complete bleed. A more effective approach is to run the pulse across the temples of the bird just back from the eyes. Since the heart and lungs are outside the main electrical path, they continue to function.

Warning: High voltage in wet environments is very dangerous! If you do decide to use electricity in your kill, be sure to amend your instruments with both fast-acting, low-ampere fuses and GFI receptacles. You should also electrically ground your cones, wear rubber gloves and rubber boots (without holes), stand on your feet in a well-drained area, and avoid leaning upon or touching metal surfaces.

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Farmer’s Tricks
Feathers are designed to shed water away from the skin, so you’ll need to plunge the bird up and down in the vat to allow the water to reach the skin. Keep in mind that the bird cannot stay submerged for too long or the heat from the vat will scald the skin. Periodically, you need to lift the bird clear of the vat, which allows the heat to escape and water droplets to work their way through the feathery down to the skin. I’ve found that submerging a bird in the water for 5 seconds, then taking it out for about 5 seconds is the right combination.

Do this for 30 to 60 seconds, or until a tug on the flight feathers causes them to break free easily from the wing. Another trick is to use a bit of eco-friendly soap in the water, which breaks down the feather oils, allowing the water to penetrate more easily to the skin. This also cleans the bird before it reaches the later stages of processing, when sanitation becomes increasingly important.

Once the feathers are loosened, they need to be pulled. You can train yourself to do this by hand in about 5 to 10 minutes. Some folks might enjoy rigging plucking gadgets made from power drills, old washing machines and rubber hoses to make the job go faster. Commercial producers are likely to select a rubber-fingered drum capable of plucking 5 birds in about 30 seconds. In my opinion, the key feature of these machines is the diameter of the cylinder, which allows the birds to roll past the fingers rather than just spin in a circle. A larger machine is a must for large birds like turkeys.

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Evisceration Steps
Lose the feet: We start by cutting off the feet so the bird hangs better in the shackle. Bend the joint sideways (i.e., perpendicular to its natural path) and gently slice through the ligaments. If you’re cutting into bone, take the time to find the gap within the joint. Other- wise you’ll quickly dull your knife and end up with bone fragments poking from the carcass.

Next, we take off the head to allow any fluids (including water) to drain from the carcass. We’ve found that garden hand pruners work well for chickens and loppers best for turkeys.

Although not strictly necessary, we cut the oil gland from the tail to avoid tainting the meat. You’ll need to scrape along the tail bone in order to stay out of the gland. Be sure to give your knife a rinse before proceeding.

Remove the crop: Perhaps the most difficult part of evisceration is removing the crop, which is the little whitish bag at the base of the neck that serves as the bird’s first stomach. You can identify the crop by following the smooth, rubbery tube down from the head. This is the esophagus, which differs in appearance from the slightly larger and ribbed trachea (windpipe).

Our crop-removal technique starts by slicing the skin down the back of the neck, then tearing all the connective tissue away from the neck until the crop is revealed. (Most people find it easier to slice down the front of the neck, but that ruins the flap of skin that covers the neck hole when roast- ing.) You then take a firm hold on the crop and tear it away from the cavity. With chickens, the crop is easily removed out the top of the bird, but with turkeys you often need to push it back into the cavity, removing it out the back end, along with the gizzard and other innards.

One additional note on crop removal: it’s easier, and often more sanitary, to remove the crop if the bird’s food ration has been removed at least 24 hours before butchering. Otherwise, you run the risk of bursting the crop or downstream digestive system under the pressure of food. Remember to leave the birds plenty of fresh water over this period to keep them healthy and help flush their digestive systems.

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Opening the birdIf you’re butchering on a shackle, it’s easiest to open the bird with a V-shaped cut that scrapes along the pubic bones just in- side the legs. Keep your knife angled away from the interior of the bird or you run the risk of puncturing an organ. If you do accidentally get into a greenish liquid originating from the gall bladder or excrement from the digestive track, stop what you are doing and wash it away immediately.

The point of the “V” should end right below the cloaca, also known as a “vent.” Then, with your free hand, pinch the skin just below the top of the “V” and complete the triangle. Now tip the bird so the posterior is facing downward and reach inside the cavity and pull out the entire chain of guts. Inspect the guts, looking for signs of disease. In particular, the liver should be a deep purple color rather than whitish or grey. If you like organ meat, the heart and gizzard (stomach) are also good to keep. Just be sure to squeeze out the blood before it coagulates, and clean the gizzard soon before the food inside begins to rot.

Rinse the cavity: When you’re finished, rinse the cavity with water. (We use a pressure-reducing module set at 15 pounds both to conserve water and reduce splashing.) Double check that all organs have been removed, paying special attention to the pair of pink lungs, which often hang up in the cavity. If you’re doing a lot of processing, consider purchasing a “lung scraper.”

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Packaging
Once clean, you need to cool the en- tire bird down to 40 degrees to arrest bacterial growth. To accomplish this, submerge the carcass in an ice-water bath for about 30 minutes, then drain the bird. If you haven’t already cut off the neck, do so now. We also perform a quality check at this point to make sure the feathers are completely removed, along with any dangling glands or other parts that don’t look appetizing.

If the bird is going into a bag, force it back into a “seated” form where the legs are tight against the chest. Then stuff the bird “head” first into the bag, filling the cavity with the neck and other organs. We use a heat-shrinking bag, which does a good job of keeping the bird in a freezer for about a year.

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